When push comes to shove, an artist or writer may feel that it has become urgent “to decide in whose service he is to place his activities.” The words are Walter Benjamin’s, from his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer.” His observation raises innumerable questions, among them how the author knows whether the service he intends to offer will be accepted. And if it is, does it ever become necessary or possible to withdraw one’s service? The essay, which was never published in his lifetime, represents Benjamin at the height of his flirtation with orthodox Communism, though he realized that the affair would never be consummated. The text was conceived as a lecture at the Paris Institute for the Study of Fascism, organized under the aegis of the Comintern, but some scholars believe the lecture was never delivered. The paradox is a cruel one: A searching analysis of the public function of the author was destined for the drawer. What in the essay Benjamin unctuously calls “the circle of our friends” never would open to include him. The only society he could think of joining was one that would decline to accept him as a member.
The problem Benjamin set himself was that of the relationship between what he calls, in the language of the day, a work’s “tendency (or commitment)” and its “quality.” Is there a relationship between these two things, or are they fundamentally separate? What Benjamin wants to show is that “the tendency of a work of literature can be politically correct only if it is also correct in the literary sense.” It is thus, he continues, a question of technique—not “good” or “bad” technique as it might be measured according to some eternal standard, but rather “a progressive development of literary technique, or…a regressive one.” Benjamin suggests that in Soviet Russia, a singularly self-conscious artist like Sergei Tretyakov could play the role of an “operative writer,” writing in such a way “not to report but to fight; not to assume the spectator’s role but to intervene actively” in the great transformations taking place. There, Benjamin says, the direction of struggle may be clear. But he allows that in the West, under the rule of capital, “it should not surprise us if the writer’s attempt to understand his socially conditioned nature, his technical means and his political task runs into the most tremendous difficulties.”
It’s worth comparing Benjamin to his near contemporary Isaac Babel, who was born almost exactly two years later (July 13, 1894, rather than July 15, 1892). Like Benjamin, Babel was a supporter of the revolution; as a writer, he experienced the reconfiguring of the boundaries between literature and journalism that Benjamin detected in the case of Tretyakov. But by 1934, when Benjamin’s approach to the party was at its closest, Babel had no illusions left. That year, he addressed the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers, where the doctrine of socialist realism was officially adopted. In what Philip Guston, a great artist who idolized Babel, later characterized as “a lovely, ironic speech” (the word “lovely” sounding Guston’s own ironic note), Babel concluded by observing that “the party and the government have given us everything, but have deprived us of one privilege. A very important privilege, comrades, has been taken away from you. That of writing badly.” The author of Red Cavalry, unwilling to assume the officially designated “correct” technique and therefore seen to represent a regressive tendency, fell into an increasing silence that did not, however, spare him the inevitable: first, his arrest, and then, in January 1940, his execution. Tretyakov had met a similar fate in 1937.